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Ball of Snakes

by Jim Lavigne

 

PROLOGUE - Somewhere near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The first week in October.

The small gravel parking spot at the trailhead was quiet and dusty with two cars, locked up tight, sitting and baking in the atypical autumn heat. During peak times, the lot would be full, but it was late in the season for hikers and campers, past the ideal conditions offered by high summer and tending to cold at night. The place itself was unremarkable, just another US Forest Service lot and trailhead, but the surrounding country was a different story. Picturesque, wild and pristine, the wilderness unfolded around for hundreds of miles of deep mountain valleys and soaring peaks and dense pine forests. If there was such a thing as "typical" Rocky Mountain terrain, this was it, the postcard-shot beauty of mountains in their primeval state.

Presently a late-model sports car pulled into the lot from the two-lane asphalt highway and settled in a cloud of dust near the others. The car door opened and a man got out, stretched and looked around. He went around to the back of his car and opened the trunk. Bending in to look over his gear, he inventoried certain important items: Extra boots, check. Duct tape, check. Four-inch lock-blade knife, check. Along with various personal items and clothing, he tossed the things into a battered day-pack and slammed the trunk.

Next he went over to the drop box that the rangers used to keep tabs on visiting hikers, a sturdy wooden affair with a small writing platform and a wad of forms for hikers to fill out detailing where they intended to camp and how long they would be there. Should there be a fire or a killer storm, the rangers would be able to locate and, if need be, evacuate any endangered visitors. It was also an honor system, with no one required to register, and no lock on the box.

The man walked over, opened the container and pulled out two forms which he studied closely, reading each one twice. Then he tore both forms into tiny pieces and, whistling a merry tune, took up his pack and headed off into the woods, up the trail and into the high valleys beyond.

ONE

 

An enormous osprey dove into a passing run over the glassy surface of the lake, cocking its white head and perfect eyes at the water, searching, searching... then Bam! Its legs shot out like pistons and talons like steel daggers darted into the water, coming up with a fat wriggling trout that, trailing a thin stream of blood, died in midair.

From the shore, thirty feet away, Jack cheered inwardly and watched the raptor fly off to the opposite shore to feast. Around him, the vast, primordial woods and mountains of the Colorado Rockies unfolded for countless miles in all directions. To right and left loomed 14,000 foot peaks, capped in snow even now in early fall. To front and back lay the valley, a mix of dense pine woods and rocky slopes, broken by streams and lakes, ridges and ravines. They'd camped beside the biggest lake, a stretch of icy, stream-fed water some half-mile long and half as wide.

The campsite was ideal, close to water, central to their planned day-hikes, situated in as pretty a stretch of nature as existed. Gentle cool breezes laden with the clean smell of pine wafted through the camp, where their jaunty orange tent had been pitched in a grove of conifers with a small firepit dug nearby.

Jack heard a shout from down the valley and rose to meet his brother Dan, who'd trekked off an hour ago to scout a nearby trailhead. It was the fourth day of their eight-day vacation, and they'd had a hard hike up into these heights. The way had looked easy on the topographic maps, but there had been a crude rope bridge at one point that had tried their abilities and resolve, but the worst had been avoided, neither had fallen, and, after a few more hard scrabbles, they'd finally reached this valley, a seemingly untouched gem among the jewels.

Every other year, when the two made these mountain hikes, they picked areas more remote than the trip before, until finally, this year, they'd gotten far indeed from the beaten path, off into the depths of one of the state's National Wildlife Areas, twenty or thirty trail-miles from the nearest civilization. The challenge was exciting and they both loved the idea (if not the fact) that they were the first people to visit a given, far-flung spot.

Both were able mountain campers and were likewise in good, which is not to say great, physical condition. In appearance the Morrison siblings certainly looked like brothers, both tall and square-shouldered, both brown-haired and handsome. There the effects of age caused the similarities to end, as Jack had lost most of his hair and had developed a pronounced gut. Try as he might, the round belly wouldn't be exercised off and Jack had begun to accept it as a sort of ill-favored buddy, a guilty pal that only he would ever appreciate.

They'd packed typically heavy for their trip and carried plenty of freeze-dried food and fuel, lots of extra clothes, matches, water filters, the works. One year, in the Maroon Bells range, they'd nearly run out of food on the long hike back to the car and had been seriously worried. They would surely have been more than worried if they hadn't been so weak and listless from hunger. The mountains were funny that way. No fuel, no move. Simple, really.

There were, however, two things that they were not allowed to bring, by mutual agreement: cell phones and watches. These two simple tools of modern society were disallowed because the brothers agreed that they only served to detract from the whole roughing-it ethic. Leave behind the tools, leave behind the modern world, and leave behind your troubles. If possible.

Jack strode down the path, his thick hiking boots kicking up small rocks and twigs, and thought about the trip so far. It was going well, he knew, they'd both had just enough of adventure and relaxation, but he was still concerned about Dan. There was something his younger brother wasn't talking about, something that made him morose and washed-out, even when he seemed happy or excited, that worried Jack, made him want to goad Dan into talking. But that would just make him clam up more, Jack thought, and so decided to let Dan bring it up in his own good time. Dan was often like that, needing, apparently, to feel completely at ease in a situation in order to talk. Jack understood and tried to put it out of his mind, but couldn't help thinking.

Hell, he thought, who am I to offer advice? My own marriage went to hell (although he could allow that the dissolution hadn't been entirely his fault) and I'm the prototypical mid-life crisis victim. Sure there's the money, the house and all, but I'm so goddamned, desperately lonely sometimes. Why should Dan, with everything in front of him, listen to me or need my advice? Dan was newly married, some four months ago, and had just been promoted to Senior VP. He could probably offer me some advice, Jack thought dolefully.

He decided (again) to just forget all of that and enjoy himself. There was time enough for life's problems; why bring them on vacation? He was also aware that, with all the time he'd spent with psychiatrists in the last few years, he'd become over-analytical. Every human character quirk or foible had a cause, a cure, or at very least a fancy, scientific name. But lately, he'd started to think that sometimes people were just... different. One man's sanity was often another man's madness. Jack tried to shake these thoughts from his head and concentrated on the beauty and grandeur through which he walked. Don't start with Helen, he thought. Not now.

"Hey buttface!" Dan called from somewhere just ahead. "Help me with this!"

Jack hurried ahead and, rounding a bend in the trail, came upon his brother lugging a sizable dead tree up the trail.

"What the hell?" Jack asked as Dan dropped the thing.

"We need the wood," Dan said, wiping his forehead. "Now c'mon, grab an end."

"Hey, guess what?" Jack said, hoisting the narrower, upper half of the tree.

"Wha?" Dan grunted, laboring with the thick end.

"We're not the only ones in this valley. I saw a campfire just now, from down by the lake. Somebody's camped up by the north end."

"Oh well," Dan said, both disappointment and resignation in his voice. "Had to happen sooner or later. Always does."

"Yeah," Jack agreed. It was usually the case on these trips that they would set up camp in what they thought was a quintessentially remote place, only to be joined within days (or hours) by other campers. So much for trail-blazing.

Together they hauled the dead tree back to camp and chopped it up with hatchets, ultimately rewarded with a nice-sized stack of firewood for the next night or two. Hot and thirsty from the work, they took a rest under the shady pines, let the thin, dry, mountain air cool them off, and sipped crystal-clean water from their bottles.

"Sweet," Dan observed, looking about the valley. "So what's for dinner?"

Jack eyed the horizon, as much as he could see with the encroaching peaks all around. The visible sky was darkening, taking on that blue-black shade that slowly creeps through the deep valleys, up over the peaks and into the sky like a reverse dusk that moves up instead of down. It was the color one sees when looking up from a jetliner window.

"Yeah, be dark in a couple hours," Jack agreed, and went to set up the small gas stove they used to boil water.

"Jack, wait," Dan said. "How about fresh trout tonight? Instead of freeze-dried whatever."

"Sounds great," Jack replied, wondering where this was going. "But how are we gonna catch 'em? Grab 'em like bears in our teeth?"

"Nope. Ta da!" Dan brought out from his pack a miniature fishing rod, complete with a normal-sized fly-casting reel. "And..." He produced a small clear plastic case of flies.

"Shit, man, get fishin'!" Jack enthused. "I'll get a good bed of coals going. Fresh Cutthroat trout... Mmm. Did you bring some lemon and butter too?"

Soon the two were standing on the lakeshore as Dan reeled in trout after trout. Sometimes the fish got wily and the pair would have to move down the shore a few dozen yards, but every new location added a couple more fish. They didn't want to take more than they needed, but they knew from experience that they could each eat at least six of these things, so Dan kept casting as night began to fall.

After Dan caught a fish, Jack would snag it from the water and remove the hook. Next he took the wriggling, cold, slimy thing to a nearby flat rock, where he used a very sharp filleting knife to slice off its head. Then the belly, ripping all of the guts from the cavity, usually with one slice. Finally, Jack washed the fish in the icy water and then laid it in a pile of snow he'd gathered from the scattered pockets of white under the trees. He kept up a running banter with his brother as they fished and they nattered happily away about sports, politics, religion, art, wherever their conversation wandered.

Just as it was getting too dark to see, Dan hooked the thirteenth trout (one over limit) and the two went to eat. Jack brought the cold trout from their snow-pack and laid them on the grill he'd positioned just so over a bed of thick pine coals. They sizzled as he laid them on the metal grate, letting off a wonderful aroma. Dan boiled some water over the stove as the fish cooked and then mixed up some flakes into mashed potatoes to accompany the meal.

"So this fire you saw..." Dan queried. "Big smoke, little smoke?"

"Little," Jack answered. "Like a cook fire. Why?"

"No reason. Just curious."

Jack knew why Dan had asked that. He was trying to determine the nature of the other temporary resident of the valley. It was somehow galling to Dan that other mere mortals would hike as far as they had. One time they'd watched in disgust as an old-looking man and three skinny kids came blithely over a pass that had nearly exhausted Jack and Dan. So now Dan was probably hoping that whoever was camped down the valley was some sort of super-hiker, a man of granite that he, Dan, couldn't begin to match in stamina and strength.

Chuckling quietly enough that his brother couldn't hear, Jack flipped the trout and kept his mouth shut. Let him hope, he thought.

 

TWO

Jack was on his fourth fish when they heard a scream. Not a normal scream, if there is such a thing. This was a scream like a rabbit being killed, or a baby, high-pitched and nerve-shredding. It was at once animal and unnatural, welling up from a screech into a wail into the imperceptible range of the ultra-sonic. Then it stopped, having lasted no more than four seconds. Normal sounds of the valley resumed, the sigh of the pines in the wind and an occasional chirp of some tiny critter, and went unnoticed by the brothers.

"Holy shit!" Dan whispered, instantly and instinctively hunch-shouldered and tense. "What was that? What the fuck was that?"

"Shhh," Jim waved. "I don't know..."

The two sat, stricken, for a good few minutes. Their trout cooled, congealed, forgotten, as they looked about in the gloom and listened. Nothing but the wind.

Jack thought to himself. What could have made that noise? A cougar? No, not cat-like at all. A bear then? Nope, too high-pitched. An owl, a bird of some kind? Maybe. But whatever it had been, it had been killed. Of that he was reasonably sure. No creature he could imagine would make that noise for any other reason. Finally Jack broke the silence, whispering.

"I think it was a bird. Like an osprey or an owl."

"My ass!" Dan hissed. "After dark? And no bird would make that noise, you know that."

"No, I don't know that," Jack persisted. "It could've been a bird getting, well, killed by something. Maybe a bobcat or a cougar on the hunt."

"Maybe..." Dan wanted to believe this explanation for the horrible scream, but he was doubtful. "But you're right about one thing. Whatever it was, it was definitely not having fun. Fucker sounded like a banshee or something. Damn."

"Yeah, I know," Jack said, consciously speaking aloud instead of whispering. "Gave me the creeps."

"Well," Dan relaxed somewhat. "Whatever it was, it's quiet now. And we wasted half our trout worrying about it."

They salvaged what they could of the coagulated trout and potatoes, then cleaned up with water from the lake, finally securing the food and cooking gear up in the trees, on a line they'd earlier rigged between two aspens. Couldn't be too careful about bears, after all. The trout heads, guts, and skins were burned in the fire.

It was true dark now, and the brothers lay back on a wide flat boulder and stared up at the night sky, a sky unlike any in the world, and simply soaked it in.

It was almost as if there was more white than black up there, there were just so many stars. The Milky Way made a thick, almost uninterrupted band of blue-white, the tiny lights so numerous that they blended together. Seen this way, it was possible to realize that they were watching the spiral arm of the galaxy rolling ponderously overhead. The idea was humbling, and they both felt that common human feeling of insignificance when faced with such a mighty example of uncaring nature.

Soon they also felt a little cold, and went back to the fire and stoked it up, adding enough wood for another hour or so of warmth and light. Both were tired from the day's hiking and exploration, but also enjoyed these moments of primitive relaxation, huddled by the fire like uncounted generations of humans had, helpless without heat and illumination but secure anyway in their vainglorious mastery of the elements.

They discussed the scream some more and it seemed to worsen with recollection, becoming even scarier in their memories, until they finally quit the topic and spoke of lighter things. Tomorrow's hike, for example, as they decided to go have a look at Crosscreek Pass, the southern end of the valley.

After a while the fire petered out and so did they. Jack rose and scooped dirt onto the coals, extinguishing most of them and effectively killing the fire. Both of them wandered a few yards into the gloom and pissed into the trees.

Dan went into the tent first and got settled, then Jack took off his clothes and crawled into his bag. The air was getting cold, an early fall, mountain cold that was thin and biting, but they were toasty in no time, only their noses and mouths poking out of the zippered bags. The air in the tent was faintly tinged with pine smoke, but a night wind blew through the tent flaps and periodically chased the musty odor away.

"Night, Jack," Dan said drowsily.

"Good night, Dan," Jack said. He made sure to sound confident, but he was actually thinking of that damnable scream and what it could mean. Some hours before dawn he finally dozed off.

THREE

He felt good, walking down the path, the rolling valley stretching out before him. In fact, he hadn't felt this good in years. Oh, the voice was still there, but it felt natural, somehow, like the cries of the birds or the wind in the trees. It was always this way when he hunted. And now he had the best set-up yet. Better than that time in Yellowstone, better even than the one in Denali. He grinned, because he knew it would be good.

To the wide world of walking skin-bags, he was the picture of normality, Joe Citizen. Inside, only he knew the raging hurricane of hatred and paranoia that dogged his cunning, shattered mind. It was his secret, the power he could call on whenever he needed to, the power he thought of as the Animal. The Animal was fearless, strong, and smart, a perfect hunting organism. The Animal was his best friend, worst enemy, and secret confidante.

And now the Animal couldn't be placated anymore. No amount of violent imagery or cathartic release was going to satisfy the Animal. Only blood, blood and death. The Animal growled in his head. "Stab 'em. Strangle 'em. Chop 'em to pieces and chew on their steaming guts. Kill 'em all."

He normally had to quell the Animal when it got this loud, this insistent. He'd put it back to sleep with the meds or work out so excessively that the voice finally got exhausted and shut up. But now it was loose, free to show him the deep Secret, the riddle of blood and brains and organs and skin. Free to kill. He grinned again. Sure was a beautiful day. And the first one had been so easy. Yeah, it was going to be sweet.

FOUR

The next morning came up cool and cloudy, unusual for the time of year, but Jack and Dan were up at dawn anyway, making coffee and freeze-dried eggs and dried fruit. By the time they'd eaten and cleaned up, the clouds had fled and the sun was rising over the peaks and so they decided to go for a splash in the lake. This was a decision not lightly taken, as the water in the lake was frigid cold, made up of run-off from the pockets of snow and ice that lingered in the valley. Dan usually hung back from this icy ablution, but today he felt like washing off some of the soot and sweat he'd accumulated in the past few days.

Unlike his brother, Jack was always up for one of these breath-stealing dips, and led the way down to the shore. Here they both stripped and, huffing in anticipation of the cold, waded very quickly into the icy lake. The rocky bottom was slippery and Dan almost went down but then regained his footing and forged in up to his waist.

"Jesus Christ!" Dan gasped. "This is fuckin' crazy!"

"It's good... for you," Jack managed through clenched, chattering teeth.

Whooping and gasping and cursing, they splashed themselves all over and scrubbed their hair with environmentally-safe soap. This took about a minute and a half and then they were out, stepping quickly but carefully over to a big flat rock on shore. They stretched out naked on the rock, gratefully soaking up the rising sun, pulling in the warmth like lizards and letting the breeze blow them dry. Both drowsed a little as their shivering ceased and they began to feel fresh and ready for another day. But not just yet, the sun was so nice...

"Well, shit," said a southern-drawl voice, a female voice. "Howdy, boys! Didn't mean to interrupt or nothin'..."

Instantly both men jerked up into a sitting position, then into a sort of awkward fetal position, and finally dove behind the rock they'd been lying on. They pushed each other, jockeying for room, cover from this interloper, and were only partly successful.

Before them stood a woman, dressed in worn hiking attire, of about forty years of age. She wasn't pretty and she didn't have a particularly great body, as far as the men could tell, but her presence was nonetheless... disconcerting. She stood, arms akimbo, her head cocked to one side, with a dopey grin on her tanned and lined face. Wisps of gray-brown hair floated in the breeze from where they'd come loose from her ponytail.

"We were, uh..." Jack stammered, blushing like a schoolgirl. "Bathing. Washing up, you know?"

"Yeah," Dan added lamely. "Washing."

"Whatever," the woman shrugged. "Name's Ethel. Pleased to meetcha." To the men's dismay, she began walking over to their rock, one rough hand out in greeting.

Jack faltered. He could run for the tent, he could tell the woman not to come any closer, he could try to shove Dan over and get more of the rock for cover... But ultimately he just smiled, crouched like a palsied pink ape behind the rock, and shook Ethel's hand, gratified that her eyes never for an instant left their faces.

"Jack," he said. "Jack Morrison. This is my brother Dan."

"Like I said, Ethel. Ethel Flowers," The woman had a firm, dry grip and her accent was Deep South, Georgia or Mississippi perhaps. "Pleased to meetcha."

She turned then and walked slowly away, down to the lakeshore, where she lit up a cigarette and sat down on a rock, her broad back to the men's camp. Dan and Jack looked at each other. What the hell? Then they figured out that their visitor was giving them a chance to get dressed and scampered back to their clothes and then to the tent.

"What's with her?" Dan asked, pulling on jeans and a sweatshirt. "Some kind of backwoods voyeur?"

"How should I know?" Jack shot back. "But look, she seems harmless enough. After all, she had us in about as vulnerable a position as a man can be in. If she meant us harm she already missed her chance."

"Yeah, I guess you're right..." Dan finished dressing and made to leave the tent. "You coming?"

"Yeah," Jack was slow in dressing. "Be out in a second."

In fact, Jack was stalling and now used the time to dig into the side pocket of his pack and pull out the .38 revolver he always brought into the deep mountains. It was in a plastic bag, lightly oiled, along with four cartridges in a separate bag, little packets of death with their lead-nosed tips. The gun, a snub-nosed chunk of blued steel and plastic, was a Colt Detective Special, small but very heavy in his hands. He'd bought it some years ago, never telling anyone about it, for this exact purpose; self-defense in the wilderness.

The Colt wasn't terribly impressive, visually, but it was small and relatively light, good for camping, and Jack had picked it for those reasons, never seriously believing he'd ever use the thing. Now, holding it, it looked puny, like a toy cap pistol he'd had as a kid. Ah well, thought Jack, maybe he would like to have a big-ass Dirty Harry gun, but this was the one he had right now and what was the sense in worrying about it?

Carefully, as he'd been taught in the class on handguns, he wiped it down and opened the cylinder. He put two cartridges into the cylinder, hesitated, and then put in two more. With a click, he pushed the cylinder back into place and rotated it so that the hammer rested on an empty chamber.

"You comin' or what?" Dan said from just outside the tent.

Making sure the safety was on , Jack stuck the pistol into his puffy down vest, into an inner pocket where he hoped it wouldn't show.

"Coming!" he called, trying to sound cheery. With a last look around the interior, he crawled out the flap and zipped up the tent.

Their visitor, Ethel, was now still sitting down by the lake and, with a collective shrug, the brothers walked down to join her.

"Uh, Ethel, is it?" Jack said to her back. The weather-beaten woman turned and smiled, looking them up and down.

"Well!" she said. "I think maybe I liked y'all better before..." Then she broke out laughing, a goofy, high-pitched utterance that couldn't help but put the brothers at ease.

"Yeah, well..." Dan shuffled his feet.

"So," Jack said. "What can we do for you, Ethel? Unless you're just paying us a visit? We were planning on a day-hike today..."

"Well now," Ethel nodded. "Get right to the point dontcha? I like that. No, I ain't just visitin'. Reason I'm here is... Well, did either of you boys hear somethin' last evening? About an hour after sunset? Kinda like a, I dunno, like a scream or somethin'?"

The brothers looked at each other, hesitating. Jack spoke up.

"We did. It was horrible. Scared the hell out of us. Do you know what it could have been?"

"No, no," answered Ethel thoughtfully. "Like nothin' I ever heard in my life. And you're right. It was horrible. Huh." She considered for a moment while the men shuffled and looked at each other again.

"Listen fellas," she said earnestly. "I'm gonna be honest with ya. I don't like it. I been up in these mountains on and off for almost ten years, and I ain't never heard a scream like that. I think we should team up and have us a damn good look-see around this valley. If there's somethin' up here that shouldn't be, I wanna know and I wanna get the hell out."

"Something that shouldn't be here?" Dan frowned. "Like what?"

"Oh, like a rabid cougar," she said. "Maybe a wounded eagle, who knows? Worst case? It's not somethin', it's some one, know what I mean?"

"Yeah," Jack said quietly. "I thought of that already."

"Some one?" Dan asked incredulously. "What do you mean? Like an escaped lunatic, some clichéd shit like that? Come on..."

"Easy, Dan," Jack cautioned. "I think all Ethel here is trying to say is that we should be prepared to discover a human cause for the scream. Not an animal at all, right?" He looked at the woman.

"Zackly," Ethel agreed. "There are all kinds a folks in the wide world and this here place is no more safe from the bad ones than Central Park or Hollywood Boulevard. And it's happened before that bad folks on the run have ended up in these high valleys."

"And what about us?" Dan asked, a little put out by their patronizing. "How come you trust us if you're so worried about "bad folks"?"

"Aw, hell," Ethel grinned. "You're not bad guys, anybody with a brain in his fool head can see that. Naw, I figure you two to be vacationers, out for some back-to-nature recreation, right? Normally you work in cities, maybe even behind desks. Am I right?"

"You're right," Jack didn't hesitate. There was something about this rough woman that he liked already. "That's... pretty much the case."

"OK, fine," Dan said, outnumbered. "So what do you want us to do?"

"Well," Ethel squinted at him. "I figure we three stick together and make us a search of the whole valley. Shouldn't take but a day."

"A day?" Dan said. "Jack, we've only got four days left..."

"Hmm..." Jack considered. He regarded Ethel earnestly. "You really think it's that important?"

"Yup," she replied, nodding.

"All right," Jack decided. Dan sighed disgustedly, tossing up his hands. "We'll help you look. But what are we going to be looking for?"

"Dunno," Ethel said. "Guess we'll know when we find it."

FIVE

The valley was not all that big, maybe four miles wide by eight miles long, but it was typical of some of the roughest terrain on earth, a mad jumble of rocks, fallen logs, brush, ridges, streams, lakes, and pine trees. Lots and lots of pine trees, in all shapes, sizes and species. Shaped like a rough oval with pinched ends, the place was bound on all sides by steep glacial cliffs and it was only at the ends that there was access. On the north end, from whence Jack and Dan had come, access consisted of a narrow cleft in the rock, reachable only via a spidery rope bridge that spanned a series of falls and rapids, an unnamed mountain stream that pounded and jumped down through the rocks on its way to the great rivers beyond. To the south was Crosscreek Pass, which the brothers had yet to see, a wickedly steep, scree-ridden notch between two 14,000 foot mountain peaks. Luckily for the human visitor, trails, both animal and human, had been beaten down over the years, following the paths of least resistance, generally lengthwise, through the valley.

It was about noon, and they'd covered most of the western side of the valley, where the scream had seemed to originate, and Jack was tired and a little winded. Ethel set a steady pace, chatting away happily about this and that, life in Texas (where she was from) and various features of the landscape about them. She showed Jack the differences between various fir trees, the burrows of animals, interesting rock formations, all sorts of forest minutiae. Jack felt a little bad that he'd brought the gun. What was the world coming to?

Jack also learned that Ethel's camp was down the valley and that it must have been her fire that he'd spotted the day before. It seemed that she always hiked and camped alone, but there was, to Jack's mind, some underlying reason for her being in this particular valley that she was loathe to talk about. She mentioned someone named Otis that she used to camp with, but then changed the subject. Jack was going to press her on the issue when their conversation was interrupted.

Dan had moved fast and was some hundred yards ahead of the others when Jack heard him running back towards them, his heavy boots thunking down the trail. As the younger brother rounded a turn in the trail, Jack saw that he was scared, eyes wide, and that he kept looking back over his shoulder, back down the path at his back.

"There's..." Dan gasped, skidding to a stop. "Something... down there. Big."

"Big how?" asked Ethel. "Big like a bear, or big like a dog?"

"Like a bear," Dan said. "It was brown, anyway. I didn't see it very well, there's trees all over..."

"OK, steady, fellas," Ethel patted the air with her hands. "Let's not get excited. Let's just walk up there, slow and quiet, and see what's what. OK?"

Jack was torn. Should he pull out his silly little gun? He suspected Ethel might just laugh at it, but he did it anyway, removing the Colt from his vest with deliberate slowness. As they walked slowly down the rocky path, he inspected the cylinder again and then clicked it one over, putting a shell under the hammer with three more in line.

The noise caught Ethel's attention and she stopped and looked back at Jack. Dan too stopped and then moved over to hover around his brother, eyeing the revolver excitedly.

"Well, well," she raised her eyebrows at Jack. "Didn't know you was packin'."

"It's nothing, really..." Jack wished he hadn't said that. "I mean, it just for, you know, self-defense."

"Yeah," Ethel said. "Well, here's your chance to defend yourself with it. If that's a bear up there and if it decides to charge us, I advise ya'll try to shoot him in the head with as many bullets as that thing's got in it..."

"Oooh-kay..." Jack said. "Uh, yeah, I'll... do that."

"Let me have it, Jack," urged Dan. "I'll shoot it!"

"No way," Jack demurred, swallowing. "Not a chance in hell. I got it."

"Tell ya what," Ethel drawled reasonably. "You don't shoot diddly until I say shoot, OK? And if I do say shoot, you wait, get a good shot, and then put every bullet into the critter's brains. Thata way, we won't get hurt by stray lead, you won't start shootin' up the place for nothin' and you won't begin a new career as a poacher when you blast a mule deer. How's that sound?"

"That sounds fine, Ethel," Jack said, sweating. "I won't fire unless you say so."

"Don't forget," she admonished. "In the head. If you shoot a bear in the body you'll just piss him off."

"Got it," Jack said, moving off down the trail, now in the lead. Behind him, Ethel and then Dan slowly followed, trying hard not to make too much noise.

The trio walked another couple hundred yards down the shady trail and then Dan pointed over Jack's shoulder into a thick, overgrown stand of pines. Very little light filtered into the dense copse, but almost immediately Jack caught a glimpse of movement amongst the undergrowth and involuntarily gasped and jumped back a few feet. Mouth dry and heart racing, he recovered and took another few steps forward, the gun now locked in a two-handed firing grip, pointed into the gloom. The valley seemed to have gone very quiet. Jack fingered the gun's safety to off.

"Shoot!" Dan whispered fiercely. "Jack, shoot it!"

"Wait," Ethel said quietly yet firmly. She shaded her eyes with one hand and looked closely into the pines. Then, against all reason or expectation, she relaxed and walked straight into the bramble-choked trees, chuckling.

"Ethel!" Jack hissed. "Wait! What are you..."

"Take it easy, fellas!" she called back. "It ain't a bear after all. Lessen ya'll know of a bear that'll wear a saddle..."

"Huh?" Dan looked at his brother, who shrugged by way of response.

From the trees the brothers heard a kind of jingling noise, then a sort of snort, and out of the brush came Ethel, leading a sturdy, red-brown riding horse. The brothers sagged and gave a collective "Phew!" as she led the animal up onto the trail and looked it over. Jack lowered the Colt, flipped the safety back to the on position and stuffed it back in his pocket.

Besides a few scratches on its flanks and face, the horse seemed fine. A finely-tooled saddle and blanket lay across its back and there was a set of saddlebags draped over its rump. The bit and gear were still in its mouth, and the reins jangled as the horse tossed its head and let out a loud whinny.

"He's hungry," Ethel scratched its head. "Aren't you boy?"

"But..." Jack was puzzled. "What's he doing out here? Where's his rider?"

"Dunno," Ethel said, expertly removing the bit from the animal's mouth. "Somewheres around, that's for sure. This is a ranger's horse. See the emblem on the saddle?"

"A ranger?" Dan asked. "Like a park ranger?"

"Yeah," Ethel replied. "They patrol out here, look after the trails and make sure no one's up to any shenanigans. Good folks, mostly."

"So where," Jack asked, looking all around, "is this ranger?"

"Hmm," Ethel scratched her chin, also casting about. "And what kinda ranger turns his horse out to graze with the bit in his mouth?"

She and Jack went cursorily through the saddlebags, finding only clothes, food, and personal items that spoke nothing of their owner.

"Hey!" Dan called loudly into the woods. "Ranger! Helloooo!"

Jack and Ethel left the ranger's effects and joined Dan, yelling into the woods, but nothing, just the wind in the pines and the chatter of a red squirrel. The horse clopped off and began hungrily mowing down a stand of grass near the trail. It seemed to have gotten colder, and the sun had gone hidden behind banks of gray cloud that had blown over a few minutes past.

"Huh," Ethel said, once they'd stopped yelling. "This is weird. Let's look around. This way."

She walked over and tied the horse to a tree where it could get to the grass, and then ambled off down the path. Somewhat nonplussed, the brothers followed.

They walked along for another two hundred yards or so, carefully inspecting the trail and the woods on either side, till they came to a fork in the path. One trail led off to the southwest toward the cliff walls of the valley, the other to the southeast, toward the center.

"Jack?" Ethel said, indicating the left hand route. "You head thataway. Me and Dan here will head thisaway."

Jack thought about it and then nodded.

"Meet back here after we each go half a mile," he said. "OK?"

"Gotcha," Ethel agreed. "And keep your eyes open."

He wished he'd brought his coat. It was definitely getting colder, and his short- sleeved T shirt felt terribly thin, the down vest only covering his torso. Jack hadn't gone fifty yards when he noticed something strange. A huge cloud of blackflies was hovering and swarming over a spot in the trail ahead. These annoying bugs were always around, but never in these numbers, unless... Cautiously he walked forward, peering curiously at the trail.

Then he saw what had attracted the flies, what always attracted flies. In the middle of the path was a puddle of some blackish stuff that the insects were feasting on, thousands and thousands of them sucking hungrily at the congealing fluid. A waft of something just barely rotten hit Jack's nose and he stepped back a few paces. Blood? He thought. Ranger's blood? Oh shit...

Wildly, he turned and bolted back toward the fork in the trail, calling at the top of his lungs for Ethel and Dan.

SIX

The first thing that Ethel did was to get rid of the flies. With quick, economical movements, she made a small fire in the trail, about fifty feet from the stinking black puddle, and then threw some green leaves and grass on the blaze. Instantly, a billowing cloud of smoke rose from the fire and puffed out down the trail, enveloping the flies in a thick, roiling cloud. After about ten minutes, she kicked the fire out and scooped some rocks onto the spot. The flies were almost all gone, just a few hundred left.

"Have to do, I guess," Ethel said and then led the way over to the puddle. Very carefully, her arms out to prevent the brothers' progress, she paced up to the black stain and scanned the area around it with her sharp blue eyes.

"Is that..." Dan asked, holding his nose. "What I think it is?"

"Yup," Ethel said, still examining the area minutely. She stooped and, swatting at the flies, peered closely at the drying liquid. Then she stood and, stepping deliberately, walked around the site in an-ever widening circle, again with eyes fastened to the ground. Jack and Dan stood and waited, looking warily into the dense pines and up and down the trail. Finally Ethel came back, stepped over the blood, where more hundreds of flies had already regrouped, and walked up to the brothers.

"This ain't good, boys," she said gravely, dusting her palms together.

"No shit," Dan muttered. Jack shushed his brother and stepped forward.

"What happened, Ethel?"

"Well, I can't say for sure," She scratched her head, looking Jack in the eye. "But, here's what the ground had to tell me. The ranger was comin' along the trail, on horseback. He gets to this spot here, and someone jumps him. Probably jumps outta that big fir there. And this second party, whoever he is, kills the ranger."

"What?" Dan said plaintively. "How do you know that? Maybe he just got... cut. A lot... You know. Hurt." He dwindled off.

"Nobody," Ethel advised, "can lose that much blood and live."

"But," Jack asked. "Couldn't it have been an animal? Like an elk that got injured and then staggered away, something like that?"

"Coulda been," Ethel shook her head. "But just so happens it wasn't. Looka here."

She led the men down the trail, near where the cloyingly-sweet decay smell was very strong, where the flies had taken back control. Here she pointed to the ground and led the way as she spoke.

"See here? Here's Mr. Ranger, come cloppin' along. Then boom! His horse takes off thataway. OK, over here now. This here is a man's boot print. It's the ranger's print, matter of fact. Made less than a day ago. Now this here? This here is a man's boot, but not the ranger. See? It's a pair of name-brand hiking boots, smaller size. Made the same time as the others. OK. Now. See over here? This is where somethin' big crashed into the underbrush. See all the busted twigs and that scuff mark? All the scrabblin' marks? And in the middle of it, there's both sets of boot prints. Only the smaller prints are behind the ranger prints, like whoever it was was standin' right close, facin' the ranger's back. Now, over here... If you look real close in the puddle there, you can see, well you could see, if it weren't for the flies, the place where the ranger fella fell over and let out all that blood. Next we see a trail of name-brand prints headin' thisaway, with drops of blood every few feet for as far as I cared to follow. Looks pretty plain to me..."

"So this... second party," Jack mused. "The guy in hiking boots. He knocked the ranger from his horse and what, shot him? No, we would've heard that..."

"Cut his throat, most likely," Ethel said grimly.

"Uh, yeah," Jack struggled with a mounting sense of dread but his mind was still curious. "And after Hiking Boots kills the ranger, he takes the body... where?"

"Dunno," Ethel shrugged. "North, far as I could tell."

"We'll have to look again tomorrow," Jack said, shivering.

"Yeah," Ethel agreed. She turned her head to look up at the lowering clouds. "Weather's changin'. Gonna storm, most likely."

"Wait a minute," Dan said crossly. "Hold on. Are you saying somebody murdered a ranger here and then made off with the body?"

"Yup," Ethel picked her teeth with a pine needle. "Most likely..."

"That's absurd!" Dan blurted. "Why? Why kill some harmless ranger? Who the fuck would do that?"

"Dan..." Jack said softly.

"No, Jack!" Dan turned to his brother. "This is nuts. And you! I can't believe you! You just met this woman this morning, for God's sake! And one other thing, Ethel. What about the scream? You haven't explained that yet. Are you going to tell us that a big, tough ranger made that scream?"

"Hold on now..." Jack tried to intervene, to give words to the strange sense of trust he'd developed with Ethel, but stumbled over the actual utterance. Ethel waved him down and stared Dan in the eye till he looked away.

"I figure," she said slowly. "That the scream we heard was made by the killer."

That shut Dan up and there was silence between them, the wind now rushing through the trees overhead. A few thick drops of rain splatted on the trail and a wave of cold air came rolling down through the valley. Both brothers shuddered and suddenly felt as if they were being watched. Jack shook his head.

"Good God," he muttered, remembering the eerie wail. He tried to link it to a human face and came up utterly empty.

"Yeah," Ethel said. "Like I said, not good. Now come on, we gotta get movin'."

SEVEN

The Animal wanted them, howled for their Secrets, for the fun to begin, but he couldn't. Not so many. Too risky. So he waited and watched. He hadn't reckoned on the weather turning this bad, but it didn't matter, there was always a way when you had the Animal as your best friend. He tried to shout down the Animal, to tell It to wait, be quiet, but it wasn't easy. Now that the fun had started, he found that one was not enough for It, not this time. But he'd have to wait till one of them was alone. Then It would be appeased, It would show him the Secret anew.

For right now he retreated in his mind to what most people would think of as memories. To him, though, the concept was unique and peculiar. Over many years of degradation and abuse, his mind had developed, seemingly on its own, the ability to see memories in exceeding clarity and detail. This was, however, balanced out by the medium that the mind used to retrieve these memories for him. It was if his memory was a series of different jigsaw puzzles, each one, when properly assembled, showing him some episode or series of moments from his past.

Out of necessity, they normally stayed jumbled up in their boxes, incomprehensible, but he could select any one at any time and, given a few minutes, quickly assemble the pieces and view not just a flat picture, not just an assembled photo, but a three dimensional simulacrum of the actual happening, a virtual reality that no computer could ever hope to create.

While this left gaps in his memories--serious gaps at that--it also showed him these particular and important times in uncanny perfection. While most people remember that some event actually happened in their past, they can't always remember the specific details. At our wedding, was Uncle What's-his-name there? Who knows? He, on the other hand, could remember what color Uncle What's-his-name's tie had been that day, every word that Uncle had said that day, details that no "normal" brain could dredge up.

This came in especially handy when the Animal was over-insistent. Like now. And so he sat back against a big tree, the birds tweeting in the trees above his head and remembered. The pieces of this particular puzzle were a little tattered from use for the recollection was an old one, from his childhood. But they went together just fine and the colors and smells and sights washed over him.

The apartment, his and Mother's. A crappy little two-room place, bug-ridden and shabby. He was seven, eight years old. Nothing on TV. Mother busy in her room with one of her friends. She'd said: "Don't never come into my room when I'm busy. Not never." But he was bored, curious, scared...

The door wasn't locked. Mother and her friend were all... tangled up on the yellowed mattress. They had no clothes on. They looked like they were wrestling, in pain. Then the man saw him standing there in the doorway. He got mad. Mother got mad. Then the man told him to do things. Made him do things. Things with his penis. And Mother watched. And helped.

Later, after the man left, Mother explained it all to him. How this was special, a secret, and that only Mother knew what was best for him. That Mother loved him and would never hurt him. That it was good to do those things with the man's penis.

The recollection ended as they sat down to a nice bowl of ice cream; loving mother, devoted and happy son.

EIGHT

As they hustled down the paths towards camp (and warmth), the trio agreed that Ethel would go back to her own camp, pack up, and reset her camp up at the brothers' spot on the big lake. The Morrisons would meanwhile hightail it back to their tent and get out of the burgeoning storm.

By the time Ethel left them, the ranger's horse in tow, the brothers were fighting strong, icy-cold headwinds and a spitting rain that was rapidly soaking them through. It was only another few hundred yards, Jack thought, no risk of hypothermia... The word sort of bounced around in his head, sounding ugly and cold and stupid. Hypothermia. No even half-assed camper should ever get hypothermia.

He looked over at Dan and saw him similarly distressed, his lips tinged blue, wracked with shivers. Jack bent his head to the cold rain and began to jog, his belly bouncing, watching the trail closely for tripping vines and loose rocks. He noticed absently that he could see his breath, Dan's too, for that matter. It must have dropped twenty degrees in the last few hours, he thought. This could get ugly...

Finally there came into sight the welcome bright tent and their food cache hanging nearby. They ran full-out the last hundred yards or so and then, warmed a little from the exertion but terribly winded and light-headed, they skidded to a stop before the tent.

A man, who jumped up as the brothers approached, was huddled in the doorflap of their tent. Maybe forty years old, of medium height, thin, with small designer glasses and a narrow, sour-looking face. He was incongruously dressed in a pair of light running shorts and a sweatshirt, with a fanny-pack cinched around his waist. On his feet were expensive-looking running shoes. Obviously chilled to the bone, shivering violently, the man shuffled around near the tent and clutched himself as he spoke.

"Is this your guys' tent?" he asked. "'Cause I'm in big trouble here. I think I got hypothermia. Can you help me? Please?"

The fellow quivered, his eyes wide with fear. Jack pushed Dan into the tent and then turned on the newcomer. His mind whirled with concern and mistrust. Could he trust this guy? With a murderer on the loose? The guy didn't look like a killer, that's for sure... After eyeing the man and thinking for a while, with the rain now really beginning to pour, he decided. It was the shoes that did it. Running shoes, not name-brand hiking boots.

"All right," Jack told the man. "Come on in, then."

"Thank God," the man said, stooping into the tent flap.

Dan moved over to make room and the three of them piled into the tent and covered up with the brothers' sleeping bags. The brothers were, needless to say, uncomfortable with this stranger crammed in here with them and their stuff, but the guy was obviously in bad shape, so they huddled together on one side and gave the newcomer half of the tent. Soon, with the rain pelting down on the fly overhead, the three had recovered enough for conversation. Jack spoke first.

"So," he said awkwardly. "Cozy, huh? Uh, I guess I should ask your name..."

"Oh," said the man. "Sorry about that. It's Marsh. Jerry Marsh. I really appreciate this you guys. Thanks a lot."

"It's OK," Jack assured him. "I'm Jack and this is Dan. But what, may I ask, where you doing up here? I mean, your clothes aren't exactly suited for hiking..."

"I was running," Jerry replied, blinking. "I run a lot. I'd never been up to this valley, and decided to make a try for it. Came out of Steamboat. Well, near there, anyway. I didn't count on the storm and all. And with that rope ladder out, I guess we're all stuck. Unless we want to go over Crosscreek pass..."

"What's that?" Dan spoke up, an edge of fear in his voice. "The bridge is out? The rope bridge?"

"That's right," Jerry said gravely. "I'd been up here about three hours and went to head down when I found it like that. It was sort of dangling there, on the far side of the stream. Totally impassable."

"Huh," Jack said, inwardly alarmed. "Did it look like it had been cut or was it like, washed out?"

"How should I know?" Jerry shrugged. "I'm an attorney, not an engineer. All I knew was that I couldn't get down. I'd seen your camp here on my run and it looked like the only shelter around, so... I hope you don't mind too much. As soon as I can, I'll head down, get out of your hair."

"Oh, it's alright..." Jack said. "But, hey, isn't Steamboat Springs a pretty far ways from here? Like twenty miles or so?"

"Yeah." Jerry answered, removing and wiping his glasses. He had small dark eyes that peered rabbit-like at Jack. "But I drove from there to the trailhead, probably where you guys set out. We're only about ten miles from there."

"Oh," Jack thought that sounded reasonable. "Well, Jerry, I guess you are stuck. You're welcome to food and shelter. I guess we can figure some way of making our stuff stretch to cover three people..."

"Maybe," Dan put in. "Ethel's got some extra stuff."

"Ethel?" Jerry asked.

"Yeah," Dan said. "She's... with us. It's kind of hard to explain."

"Just another camper," Jack said dismissively, earning a look from Dan. "We met her this morning and she's decided to camp here, near us."

"Why?" Jerry asked. "I thought you camper types liked your solitude."

"Just..." Jack wasn't used to prevarication. "Being sociable, I guess..."

"Huh," Jerry grunted. "Whatever. Listen, guys, I'm famished. Anything you could spare to eat would be really, you know, great..."

With that they set to work in the cramped space to make some food. Dan dashed out for the stove from his pack and Jack went out for a few packets of freeze-dried from the cache. He had to lower it, rummage around for something decent in the pack and then hoist the whole thing back up into the air. By the time he got back he was cold and wet again, but Dan had water on to boil and the air had warmed in the tent to an almost tolerable level. Jerry was still wrapped in Jack's bag, zippered up to the eyeballs. The three sat mostly in silence, the rain loud on the thin fabric of the tent over their heads, occasionally making some innocuous comment.

Jack and Dan were both contemplating the prospect of their having to climb the pass. Additionally, Jack couldn't help but think about the ramifications of finding the ranger's horse and... remains. There were the authorities to contact, the questions to be answered, depositions to be given, the whole ball of red tape to be wound.

But what really concerned him was the immediate future. If this guy, Jerry, was right, then they were stranded, at least temporarily, in the valley with a murderer. This was hard for him to grasp in any serious way. The incongruity of gruesome death in this eminently peaceful valley, perhaps, or the sense of disjointed unreality that he felt. There was also the simple existence of Jerry here in their tent to be worried about.

His mind focused on the problem like it did when he read a mystery novel. OK, who are the suspects? So far, just good old Jerry, the jogging attorney. And Ethel, of course... But that was absurd. Wasn't it? He frowned. Could it have been Ethel? He fulminated, deep in thought. Jerry's unexpected question made him start.

"So you guys..." Jerry said, muffled. "Are you brothers?"

"That's right," Dan replied, occupied with dinner. "How did you know?"

"You look alike," Jerry said reasonably. "In my line of work, you develop a knack for things like that."

"You're an attorney?" Jack queried. "Can't be a lot of work in Steamboat..."

"Man, you got that right," Jerry sighed. "But it's not so bad. I made a bundle in the market a while back, so now I mostly just take cases that interest me."

"It that right?" Jack said. "Like what, for instance?"

"Oh, whatever," Jerry answered. "Mainly environmental causes."

Dan had the water boiling by now and carefully poured water into each of the three pan plates he'd laid out, then added equal portions of Salisbury Steak, instant mashed potatoes, and green beans. Salt, pepper, utensils, and napkins were laid out, along with cups of hot tea. The three chatted a bit as they ate but the storm was distracting and they found themselves listening to it more than to each other.

They were all but done eating and were feeling much more comfortable when the flap parted and Ethel's wide head, dripping wet, popped into the tent. Jack was disconcerted that he hadn't heard the woman approach their camp but, despite his speculative, amateur-sleuth pondering, he was glad to see her.

"Howdy, boys. It's..." she stopped short when she saw Jerry. "Oh, I see ya'll got company." She gave Jack a sort of funny look. "Say, uh, Jack. Can I, uh, see you, you know, outside?"

"Ethel," Jack pleaded. "It's pouring and cold out there."

"I strung a tarp," she said firmly. "Dry as toast."

"Oh all right..." Jack grumbled, reaching for his boots.

NINE

Out under the tarp, Ethel lit a damp Marlboro and eyed Jack through the smoke. She'd put on a heavy wool coat and a red wool stocking cap. The rain was still coming down but seemed heavier somehow, more dense, as if the drops had gotten bigger. A chilling wind blew down from the pass, swept over the camp and the lake and roared overhead in the pines. The tarp flapped violently but held to its moorings. Jack waved his arms and stomped his feet, working to get his circulation going. He looked around for the bulk of the ranger's horse but saw nothing.

"Where's the horse?" he asked.

"Gone," Ethel answered curtly through the smoke. "Broke its leg in a crevasse. Damn shame, too, 'cause it was a fine animal."

"Oh..." said Jack, not wanting to ask what she'd done with the poor creature. "So... what did you want to talk to me about?"

"What's the idea?" Ethel asked Jack, jerking her head at the tent.

"What do you mean?" Jack responded, uneasy with his thoughts and the woman's confrontational manner. "Jerry? What about him?"

"Did it occur to ya'll that he might be..."

"The killer?" Jack finished. "Yes, it did occur to me, and I ruled it out. He's got the wrong kind of shoes, for one thing, and, well, just look at him. He seems pretty damned harmless to me. Besides, what was I supposed to do? Just let him freeze to death, right outside my tent?" He was almost shouting by the time he finished, waved to silence by Ethel.

"Now, now," she said quietly. "I suppose you're right, nothing much you coulda done. You know, though, he coulda changed his shoes..."

She fell silent, smoking pensively, while Jack paced around a little and then leaned against a tree. He was afraid, tired, cold, and irritated and wanted nothing but to get into his bag (except of course Jerry was in it) and sleep for a week.

"Look, Ethel..." he said, exasperated. "I'm tired and cold. I need some sleep. If you've got a point, make it."

She smiled her leathery grin at him. "Fair enough," she said. "I guess we got no choice but to trust the fella. But what about tonight? What if there's someone else in this valley, besides us four? For all we know, there could be another dozen people camped around here. I for one don't wanna get my throat cut while I'm sleepin'."

That unpleasant reality brought Jack up short; he hadn't thought of that...

"You're right," he said. "We should post watches. I guess I could manage a few more hours..."

"Naw," Ethel shook her head. "I got it. I'll wake ya'll up in about three hours. Meantime, I bet ya'll are gonna need a bag? I got an extra..."

"Now that you mention it..."

Jack gratefully accepted the older yet quite serviceable sleeping bag and went back to their tent, where Dan and Jerry were already asleep, both snoring softly, zipped up tight. It was a struggle to undress so he settled for taking off his boots. He squirmed a space for himself between the sleepers, spread out the bag, half-on, half-off the pads lain there for warmth and dryness, and crawled in.

Jack had planned to mull things over before he went to sleep, to try to make some sense of what was happening, but his body had other ideas and within five minutes he was deeply asleep. Outside the tent, as the rain fell and the wind howled, Ethel sat before a small fire built under the tarp, deep in thought, and kept her eyes and ears open.

TEN

He was having a little trouble. Granted, tomorrow was another day and the Animal would be unleashed again, but it was so loud, so insistent. Now the growling voice never quit, never ceased its terrible, wonderful litany of mayhem and blood. In his head it grunted, it screamed , it wailed and gibbered. They couldn't hear it, of course. He'd know if they could hear it. They'd be afraid.

"Kill them. NOW! Kill them all and bath in their sticky, delicious blood! Tear off their skin with your teeth and chew out their guts! Feel their eyeballs pop under your thumbs... KILL THEM!"

It never stopped, no matter how hard he tried to block it out, and the Animal was inventive, never advocating the same violence twice. He was starting to think that if the Animal got any louder, they would hear it. It would come rumbling from the deep dark places where it lived and crack his head open and shout its gory presence to the world. Or it would take control of him, his mouth and tongue, and give voice to the litany of blood and death. That would be bad, he decided. Too soon, too risky. He would wait. But it was hard. The Animal was strong, it was angry, and it was hungry.

In response to the stress, he went to the shelf in his mind and pulled out another of the jigsaw puzzle memories, this time one that he particularly liked, one from his teen years. This one took a while to put together, but it finally came into shape and he drifted off into a perfect recreation of an event from his past.

He's seventeen and he and Mother have moved into a bigger apartment. He and Mother come in the door, followed by a disreputable-looking fellow who is obviously drunk. He goes to one of the bedrooms and closes the door behind, then goes back and watches through the one-way peephole on his side. Mother uses the drugs and the man drinks them, unsuspecting. He comes out of the bedroom with a ball bat. He smashes the man's kneecaps and then the man's hands. The man yells but is out after the second whack. Mother goes through the man's things and finds the drugs and money that they'd hoped for. He gets rid of the man, taking him to a landfill he knows.

Later, very high on the drugs. Drained after the intensity of their fierce sexual coupling, he and Mother laugh at their good fortune. They plan on how to spend the money, when to work this way again. After all, they have each other and the world is their oyster. Mother is pretty and smart, son is strong and brave.

 

ELEVEN

There she was, beautiful, graceful, happy. Helen in better days, when they'd been dating, when she was... OK. They were on a beach somewhere, white breakers and white sand under an orange sky. She was walking towards him, legs long and smooth, her head down, masked by falling blond hair. He rose from the blanket and went to meet her. But he didn't want to, he was afraid. Helen? He said. Is it you? She looked up and then he was really afraid. Mortally terrified. He tried to turn, to run, but he was a block of cement with eyes. Her face looked like it had the last time he'd seen her. Her eyes rolled wildly, unfocused and glaringly insane. Her mouth writhed with a life of it's own, tongue lolling and lashing. He cringed but could not move. Her mouth never formed the words but he heard them all the same: "You did this, Jack. You made me this way. What kind of husband do you call yourself? What about me, Jack? What about me?"

Jack jerked awake, terrified and pouring sweat. Mercifully, his mind let the dream float away and he focused on reality. He was in the tent with Dan. And Jerry. And they were in some kind of trouble... And Ethel was shaking his foot.

Full consciousness flooded in and Jack, the dream now banished, groaned and made to get up and take his turn at watch. He noticed that, judging from the sound of it, the rain had finally stopped; now it was more of a light hiss than the previous incessant pattering.

"Well that's good, anyway..." he muttered, struggling with his wet boots.

"What's that?" whispered Ethel.

"Rain stopped."

"Uh, Jack?"

Ethel threw back the tent flap. Outside, the air was white with heavy flakes of wet snow, blown nearly sideways by the cold wind that now fluttered through the tent. From what he could see in the dark, a thin crust had already developed on the ground and more snow was piling up as he watched. Ethel looked him gravely.

"We got us a whole new ballgame."

"Christ!" Jack swore, joining Ethel under the tarp. "As if we didn't have enough problems..."

"Yeah," Ethel yawned. "Well, nothin' stirrin' so far. Keep your eyes peeled, though. I cut up some wood for the fire there, but don't stoke it too big or you'll melt the tarp. 'Night, Jack."

She went over to her own, one-person pup tent and crawled in, expertly shedding her boots as she went, leaving them just outside, under the tent's rain-fly. Jack paced around under the tarp and looked up into the swirling snow, then went over and crouched by the fire, adding a few twigs to give himself something to do. If someone is out there, he thought, they're freezing their balls off.

He paced some more, fighting a deep fatigue, and then was suddenly seized with a thought. Ethel's boots. There they were, just sitting there... No, he thought, don't start thinking like that. It couldn't be Ethel. But he couldn't help himself and guiltily sidled over to Ethel's tent. He stooped and picked up one boot, turning the sole to the firelight for a better view. It was flat, almost worn smooth from use. Greatly relieved and feeling fairly sheepish, he gingerly replaced the boot and turned back to the fire.

Alternately pacing and minding the small fire, he passed an hour. The snow continued, swirling under the tarp until a rough circle was outlined around the fire. Jack watched it fall and worried, willing it to stop. Cut it out! he thought. It's not even October yet! Of all the places where you could drop an early blizzard, why does it have to be here? But the weather was as inscrutable as ever, caring not a bit for whatever foolish creatures were in its way, and kept right on snowing.

Jack paced and worried, paced and looked up at the cursed snow, paced and flapped his arms. He was tired but he was now riding a jittery wave of fear-energy, his adrenal glands pumping to give him an edgy alertness that kept him pacing and worrying long past the three hours he was supposed to cover in their rotation of watches.

Mind awhirl but unfocused, like a rat in an endless maze, he barely noticed when the sky started to lighten just a little, the black giving way very slowly to a dark, dark gray. The snow never let up for a second. It fell and fell, piling up all around the tarp, covering the tents, covering everything in a blanket of crystal white. What if it doesn't stop? he thought. What if we're in the middle of some sort of freak, early-season blizzard that was just going to keep going and going for days? Used as he was to being involved in situations in which he was powerless, Jack felt a sort of angry dread creeping in, the feeling that they hadn't seen the worst of this.

Finally he realized that he'd been wool-gathering, shook off the torpor into which he fell, and went to rouse the others, surprised at how light out it had become. He realized he was hungry and thirsty and had to pee really bad. How long had he been pacing and worrying? he wondered. A look at the sky told him that he'd fretted away the rest of the night; it was already dawn.

Shaking his head again, Jack looked around the campsite. The tents were completely covered in new snow, the ground all about them was at least hip-deep, and the sad little fire under the tarp had long since burned itself out. Covered in snow and frost like cake frosting, the surrounding trees bent low under the weight, branches drooping like tired old men. And still the snow fell and the wind blew.

"Hey, sleepy-heads!" he called to the tents, his voice sounding small and muffled in the wind and the new blanket of white. "Time to get up!"

He was rewarded by a very Dan-like groan and some mumbling and thrashing noises from both tents. Feeling tough and worldly somehow, maybe since he'd let them all sleep and stayed up all night, he went to rekindle the fire.

 

TWELVE

Within a few minutes Ethel shook her way out of her tent, clearing a small space in the snow where she could stand and lace up her boots. Then she made paths from each tent to the clearing beneath the tarp, stamping down the snow to form narrow paths that ended up looking like trenches.

"What the hell, Jack?" she said as she worked. "You been up all night?"

"Yeah," he said, poking the small, growing fire before him. "I wasn't sleepy. More... worried, I guess."

Ethel paused, looked around her in wonder at the snow, and whistled.

"Shee-it!" she drawled, hands on hips. "This here is a bona fide storm, no doubt about that. Damnation."

"What the fuck?"

This was Dan, getting a face full of snow as he opened the tent flap and looked out. He shook the cold wet clumps from his head and momentarily withdrew back into the tent. A few unintelligible yet vehement words could be heard from within and then Dan emerged, pushing small drifts aside to let himself out.

"Morning," Jack greeted his brother cheerlessly. "It, uh, snowed last night."

"No!" Dan groaned in sarcasm. "Is that what it is?" He bent back down and spoke into the tent. Might want to stay put for a while, Jerry," he said to their guest. "It's a little cold. And snowy. And windy..."

A grunt from Jerry was plenty of answer, and Dan re-zipped the tent flap and joined Jack and Ethel beneath the tarp, on the only dry ground to be seen. All of them had put on their warmest clothes and none of them were particularly uncomfortable, but it was cold, Jack would guess ten degrees or so, and the wind gusted through the campsite like a thief, grabbing at hair and clothing and turning their exposed faces numb. The three huddled by the fire and talked.

"What are we going to do?" Dan asked in a dawning sense of alarm.

"Have breakfast," Ethel answered evenly.

"No, I mean," Dan pursued. "What about getting out of here? We can't hang around here, not after yesterday. We have to get down and tell somebody about this. The authorities..."

"Will have to wait," Jack finished for him. "We're just going to have to wait. There's nothing else we can do."

"Shit!" Dan spat. "This sucks."

"Yup," Ethel nodded. "But Jack's right. We'd break our necks tryin' to go up the pass in conditions like these. And the rope bridge? Forget it. Besides, this is a freak storm. It'll most likely melt off in a day or two. Once it stops, that is..."

"Oh yeah," something had occurred to Jack. "I forgot to tell you. Jerry says the bridge is out." Ethel greeted this bit of news with a grunt and shook her head.

"Shit," she said. "Hadn't figured on that." The three sat for a while in silence, glaring at the falling whiteness and trying to keep near the fire without getting singed.

Jack eventually sighed and stood up.

'Well," he said. "Better see about some chow..."

 

THIRTEEN

It was a cold meal that morning, one of oatmeal and dried fruit and tea, eaten hunched near the fire. Except for Jerry, that is. He'd taken one look out the tent flap, cursed like a sailor and zipped himself back in. Ethel brought him a pan of food, which he thanked her for and greedily accepted. Returning to the fire, Ethel hunkered down and eyed the brothers.

"You really trust that guy?" she asked, indicating the tent.

"No," Jack said firmly. He'd been thinking about this. "I don't."

"Wha?" Dan spluttered. "And you let me sleep in the same tent with him? Thanks a lot! Man!"

"Relax," Jack assured. "Let me explain. I don't trust him, but I don't think he killed the ranger, either. I think there's at least one other person in the valley, maybe more, that are... responsible."

Across the fire, Ethel sighed heavily and shook her head.

"What is it, Ethel?" Jack inquired.

"Aw, hell," she said after a pause. "I was hopin' this wouldn't come up, but now I guess I gotta tell ya'll the truth." She looked up at them. "Fact is, I'm not just here to camp and hike. You see, there's this man, my brother, and he, well... lives here. In the valley. Has for about a year now."

The brothers eyes slowly dilated to full-open and their mouths widened to Os. Dan shook his head in disbelief.

"Jesus, Ethel!" Jack forced himself to keep his voice low enough that Jerry, over in the tent, wouldn't overhear. "What the hell? I don't believe this!"

"Put the gun on her, Jack!" urged Dan, pushing his brother on the shoulder. "She's the killer's sister, man!"

"You take it easy!" Jack rounded on his brother. "And keep your voice down..." He turned back to Ethel. "I suppose now you're going to tell us he's a homicidal schizophrenic. Ted Bundy with fangs. And he escaped from the asylum and has a steel hook. What is this shit, Ethel? Huh?"

The woman bowed her head, speaking into the fire. As she did, Jack felt a sort of pressure building inside of his chest and he developed goosebumps, but not from the cold. To him, the story hit close to home.

"No, he's not homicidal. But he is schizophrenic. Crazy as a bat in a whirlwind. His name's Otis. We always knew Otis was different, but it was in his teens that things got rough. He used to sorta just... withdraw. Just kinda zone out and not respond to nothin'. Wouldn't eat, wouldn't sleep, go to the shitter, nothin'. This'd last for a few days, then a couple of weeks, then months and years. Keep in mind, this is West Texas, ignorant and poor. Dirt fuckin' poor. Pardon my Greek."

"But that ain't no excuse. My mom and pop shoulda found a way to get Otis better care. Where they sent him? More like a prison, like a warehouse, than a hospital. I mean, hospitals are supposed to cure people, right, make 'em better? I was just a kid, I didn't know no better. Not then, anyway..."

"Well, finally, when I was fifteen, Otis got let out. I guess they figured he was better, but they was wrong. Oh sure, he was, you know, aware, he could eat and watch TV and take care of himself in a real simple way, but he wasn't better. He still couldn't talk. He was just kind of a... veg, I guess. I didn't pay him no mind, I was young and wild and more interested in cruisin' with the local boys than carin' for my weird crazy brother. Typical kid, I 'spose."

"Well, one night somethin' inside Otis musta just snapped. He up and vanished, just walked off into the night. I was moved outta the house by then, but I helped with the search parties and the fliers and all. But nothin'. No Otis. Poof. After a month they quit lookin'. After a year they declared him dead."

"I was goin' through what crappy little bit of stuff he had that spring, after he disappeared, as a favor to mom. Otis had some toys and books and crayons and shit, and it was then that I really started to feel bad about Otis and how we'd, well, let him down, you know? I mean, here was this pathetic little pile of junk that nobody would give a shit about, but it was all this guy had ever owned. A growed man, a big, ugly growed man, matter of fact."

"Well, I cried. Cried and cried. My mom told me it couldn't have been helped, Otis was just crazy and no one could help him and all this shit, but I knew. I knew we coulda done better by him. Got him better doctors, for one thing."

"Well, time passed and I got on with my life. Went into nursin'. Seemed the thing to do... But even the patients we got in the ER didn't hurt like what'd been done to Otis."

"So this kinda keeps gnawin' at me, you know? I can't stop thinkin' about it, it's drivin' me nuts. I thought I was gonna go crazy, too. Then it hit me. What if Otis wasn't dead? What if he'd just... escaped? What if he'd busted outta the shell he'd been in and lit out on his own? Well, one way or another, I had to know. It wasn't never gonna let go of me 'till I found out. That was eight years ago."

"I quit my job and spent the first few years spinnin' my wheels, but finally I caught a hint of Otis in St Louis, a guy that recognized Otis' picture. He was positive. The guy said he'd worked at the same assembly plant with Otis a year ago. Didn't know what had happened to him, just up and left one day, looked like. Then there was the guy in Phoenix, at the Burger King. That led to California, then Oregon, finally Denver and now... here.

"I was always a few months behind him, but I started to get a picture of Otis, a sorta impression. He was doin' all right, mostly. Held down a menial job for a few months, lived in public shelters, saved up some cash and then moved on. I talked to hobos, winos, hookers, truck-drivers, waitresses, God, all kinds of characters. Everybody that knew Otis seemed to like him, in a vague sorta way... They all figured he was just kinda slow."

"After a lot of lookin' and talkin', I finally traced Otis here. Seemed he'd become quite the outdoorsman in his stay in Denver. Just loved the campin' and hikin'. Spent all his free time up in the mountains. He saved up some money again, but this time he didn't move on to another city. He moved away, as far away from people as he could get."

"'Course, when I heard that, I worried. That poor crazy bastard out here in these mountains? He'd be dead in a week. But, turned out, I was dead wrong. Otis is a born, natural woodsman. He can live off the land better than most animals and he's got a thicker coat. Like one of them, whattaya call it? Gifted Savants? Damnedest thing I ever heard tell..."

"So, anyway, I tracked him for about another year until I finally found him. He wasn't mad I'd come or nothin', just kinda confused. Why come all this way? I couldn't believe it when I first saw him. Here was this guy I'd always known as a vegetable, talkin' and smilin'... Well, it was a shock."

"I stayed with him for a few days, saw he was doin' just fine, and left. It seemed like the best possible thing. Otis was happy and free and the rest of the world wouldn't have to deal with another crazy person. Why not? It was a load and a half off my mind, tell ya what... So now I visit him sometimes. He lives down yonder, up a hidden box canyon by the bridge."

Finally she looked up at Jack, tears glinting in the corners of her eyes.

"But Otis'd never hurt nobody, Jack. You gotta believe me! If he was, you know, dangerous, I'da told you. I swear. And... I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner."

The brothers were silent. Around them the wind howled and, completely unnoticed, the snow began to slacken. Dan pressed his lips together and looked at Jack, then back into the fire.

To Jack the whole speech had been one of all too familiar concepts. Her brother had undergone a change that was, to Jack, intimate, first-hand knowledge. It sounded a lot like Helen.

FOURTEEN

Helen had gone away, just like Otis. No one, not the neurologists, not the psychiatrists, not the physiologists, no one could ever really tell Jack why. Why had she been a perfectly happy, well-adjusted, well-loved human being and then change over the course of only two years into a wild dervish of fractured, paranoid madness? It was a brain tumor. Nope, biopsy negative. It was a chemical imbalance. Wrong, the drugs only made it worse. It was her childhood. Uh-uh, raised in perfect bliss. So what was it? No one could ever say, and, in the end, Jack had had to accept that. But he would never get over it.

They'd been the happiest couple around, up-and-coming, ambitious, good-looking, intellectual, and gregarious. They'd aggressively pursued their respective careers and planned on kids. But they'd only been married for about a year when the first of what Jack came to think of as "episodes" had occurred.

While having dinner at a very nice restaurant one night, Helen just sort of came unglued. Jack had noticed that she'd been touchy lately, prone to anger and accusation, but he'd shrugged it off, citing work pressures, PMS, who knew? The dinner was, in fact, a chance to relax and enjoy themselves, a break in their busy schedules.

Helen had been keeping a close eye on their waiter all night, an innocuous little Hispanic guy who'd rendered excellent service. Jack asked her what was wrong, what's with the waiter?

"He should stop it," she'd said conspiratorially, her voice strange, child-like. "It's not nice."

"Stop what?"

"Listening to my thoughts. The fucker."

Helen had almost never cursed and this had shocked Jack. Helen wasn't drunk, she wasn't cranky, she was just plain acting crazy. He'd been confused, embarrassed. Helen's face had taken on an almost sinister cast and her eyes had darted here and there under half-slitted, suspicious eyes, never losing sight of the waiter when he wasn't in the kitchen. The people at tables near them had stared obliquely at her, politely ignoring the minor faux-pas. What's happening? He'd thought.

"Honey, that's..." Jack had begun, then stopped. "He's not doing any such thing... Are you OK? Should we get going?"

"Oh, I'm fine..." she'd drawn out the words. "But he's a fucker and he's gonna get it..."

"Oookay..." Jack had made to go. They'd already paid their check and had been having coffee when this had started. Suddenly she'd leapt up like a frightened deer and bolted for the waiter, screaming a feral threat as she went. The whole place had erupted, people jumping up, waiters and staff rushing over, a small-scale pandemonium. Jack had corralled his wife through no small effort, kicking and screaming. Jack had never really considered that phrase before but he was a believer that night.

She'd calmed down about halfway home, in the car, just sort of sighed and looked over at Jack and smiled. She didn't remember any of it. Or at least that's what she'd said. Jack was torn in half. What was going on here? He'd tried to tell her about it, had asked her what was wrong, all the normal things one might say in such a situation, but she'd claimed that he was nuts, nothing like that had happened. She'd had a very nice night.

Finally Jack gave up and had tried to forget about it. But it happened again, at an art museum. Then again at a friend's party. Jack had put his foot down after the third time and, with the help of her family, had made her go to the doctors. And so it had begun, the "Age of Medicine" as Jack thought of it, a never-ending cavalcade of psychiatrists and neurologists and specialists of kinds that Jack never did understand. And Helen just got worse, the examinations and tests feeding her fear, her raging, unbreakable paranoia. It didn't happen over night, like a switch being flipped, but it did happen quickly, so fast that one day Jack had come home from work and found Helen gone, checked out of the house and into a hospital by her family.

Jack had been there for Helen every minute, but she began to fear even him and then to accuse him of handing her over to "Them", meaning the hospital and staff. His heart finally broke when she did that, and Jack had known that she was lost. But he'd kept visiting, every day, always checking with her specialist-du-jour about any progress. The weeks turned into months and years and Helen just got worse, the brief periods of semi-lucidity coming at greater and greater intervals and finally, not at all. Her family, patrician money, had reluctantly concurred that there was no other choice, and Helen was put under full-time care. Lockup Ward in a very well-respected hospital.

Jack had wrapped his grief and misery in a show of courage throughout the ordeal, always up-beat, always hopeful, but once she was really gone and he was alone with the house and all of their things, he'd hit bottom, plumbed the depths. He'd taken a sabbatical/hardship leave from his career and had nothing to do. He'd pushed away anyone who tried to help and then proceeded to try to drink himself to death. A quart of vodka, twice a day, was his prescription, and he was doing a rather good job of it when, after two months, Dan and Mr. Herb Morrison, their dad, had come over and hauled him away to rehab. He'd gone willingly, too weak to put up a fight. And he'd dried out and learned how to deal with Helen's illness. But it had been hard, so hard. So much anger and resentment and guilt.

That was all three years past, but Jack had never really, fully recovered. Emotionally raw, he made it from day to day, then week to week, slowly rebuilding interests, friendships, slowly moving forward in putting the pieces of life back together. Dan had been, of course, great, and the younger brothers' recent wedding had been a time of genuine joy for Jack, one that he'd scarcely known how to enjoy anymore.

And the camping vacations. Those had helped immensely, showing Jack the somehow heartening fact that the mountains and all they stood for were absolutely indifferent to Jack and his pain and guilt. They'd be there long after Jack and all of his troubles weren't even memories, and that allowed him to put things in a semblance of perspective. Yes, the mountains had held all good memories... till now.

 

FIFTEEN

Jack didn't think all these things, he didn't dredge up all the memories of Helen and her illness. They were part of him, like scar tissue, and he flashed through the whole ugly time in a few seconds. Then he was back, squatting before the fire, under the tarp, in the mountains, with Dan and Ethel, the wind whistling past and the snow now lightening to flurries. He wiped his eyes quickly with the back of his hand and looked at Ethel.

"I believe you," he said firmly. "About your brother. I don't know why, I don't have any reason to, but... I believe you. I have some... personal experience with mental illness."

Ethel slumped a little in relief and sighed. Dan looked expectantly back and forth at the two of them.

"Thanks, Jack," Ethel said quietly. "But, if ya'll don't mind my askin'... who?"

"My wife," Jack said evenly, knowing exactly what she meant.

"Ah," Ethel nodded sadly. "I'm sorry."

The three were quiet for a few moments, then Dan stood and paced around, flapping his arms for warmth. Around them the valley, so recently an idyllic place of natural beauty, had been transformed overnight into a harsh wilderness, cold and forbidding and dangerous.

"OK, so..." Dan demanded. "Now what? So we know there's someone else up here, so what? Does that change anything? I mean, the bridge is still out, it's still cold as shit, and we're still camping in the same valley with a fucking murderer. Am I wrong?"

His voice had risen to a shout, and the last word, "wrong" came reverberating down off the valley walls before being absorbed by the snow and wind.

"Take it easy, Dan," Jack went over to his brother. "We're going to be fine. We just need to wait this out..."

"Yeah, well..." Ethel contradicted gently. "Here's the deal with that. I'm gonna have to go see that Otis is OK, snow or no snow. He's my brother. Plus, while I'm down there, I can check on the bridge."

"Hmm..." Jack tried to focus on the here and now. "Yeah, I can see that you'd want to check on him. And the bridge. But don't you think it's a little dangerous? I mean, you can't even see the trails anymore, you could fall into a crevasse..."

They discussed their options for some time, going over the various pros and cons of different courses of action. Inaction was, of course, another option; they could just sit tight and wait for the snow to melt. With the addition of Ethel's provisions they had enough food for another week if need be, even with the unexpected addition of Jerry. But the idea of huddling in the tents was somehow repugnant and they put that at the bottom of their list of possibilities.

Finally they agreed on a plan. Ethel and Jack would go down the valley and see Otis and check on the bridge, while Dan held down the fort here with Jerry. They'd decided there was a fair chance that local Search-and-Rescue teams might be out and about, in planes or choppers perhaps, and that the tents and fire made the best attention-getters around. Jack and Ethel would try to be back by nightfall, but they were taking bags and food just in case.

As far as self-defense went, Jack would take the Colt, reasoning that the killer, whoever he was, hadn't jumped a campsite, instead attacking a single victim. In other words, Safety in Numbers. Dan wasn't unarmed, either, as he would have their cooking utensil, a huge Bowie-knife thing that served as spatula, tongs, and cutlery, about a foot of forged steel, razor sharp. And Jerry even agreed to take his turn at watch that night, if need be.

Once decided, Jack and Ethel went and packed a light bag each and made ready to go. The weather seemed to be mellowing in intensity and had settled in as just plain cold and windy.

Jack drew Dan aside before they left, noticing the anxious look on his brother's face, and put an arm around his shoulder.

"It's going to be OK," Jack said firmly. "We're going to be fine. All of us. OK?"

"OK..." Dan answered doubtfully. "If you say so..."

"I do," Jack said. "But, uh, while we're gone? Keep an eye on Jerry. Right?"

"Right. Like a hawk. But, you know... why? You think he's... dangerous?"

"Naw, of course not. I wouldn't leave if I did. It's just, I don't know. Just keep an eye on him, OK?"

"Yeah. Come back quick, Jack, all right?" It seemed like there was more that Dan wanted to say but he kept quiet.

"Hey, we'll be back by dark," Jack said in his best big-brotherly way. "Don't worry."

From over by the tents, Ethel shouted over at Jack to hurry up. She was already wearing her pack and had cut each of them a stout, seven-foot long stick to probe the treacherous rocky paths for cracks and drop-offs. Even Jerry poked his head from the tent to wish them luck. Jack patted Dan on the back one more time and went to join her.

 


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